In late 2012, Grant Morrison returned to the world of creator-owned comics — this time with Image rather than his perennial creative outlet, Vertigo — and within the first few pages, there was a strong sense that he was flexing some imaginative muscles that have atrophied just a bit during his time writing DC's Big Two (a problem I felt was also at play with the beginnings of Joe the Barbarian a couple of years ago).
Happy! is the tale of Nick Sax and his personal redemption on a particularly dark and twisted Christmas. Sax is an ex-cop-turned-hit man with a drug problem as well as eczema who, after a hit goes sour, is being hunted by his former employer, Mister Blue. While this sounds like the basis for just about a million generic gritty crime stories, this is Grant Morrison we're talking about. He probably couldn't do that sort of thing straight if you threatened to destroy everything he loved.
So here, after being seriously injured, Sax wakes up to find a strange little blue flying donkey-Pegasus named Happy flitting around and telling him that he has a mission. Happy is the imaginary friend of a little girl named Hailey and she's been kidnapped by a depraved pedophile in a Santa suit and they only have a set amount of time to rescue her. Aside from Hailey, Sax is the only person who can see and hear Happy the Horse.
As you can imagine, Sax doesn't take this turn of events well.
And did I mention he was being hunted by his ex-boss? Both a corrupt cop named Maireadh McCarthy and a torture expert called Mr. Smoothie are on his trail and Sax's only concern is getting out of town alive.
So far as Grant Morrison projects go, this is may be one of the least inventive. Which isn't to say it's not inventive, but there seems to be only one or two levels upon which he's working thematically. On one hand, he's clearly playing around in the wheelhouse of other writers whose work he hasn't had much interest in or respect for. By doing that, you get the sense that he's doing what he can to rub the readers' collective noses in the muck that passes for "realism" in the more extreme comic works that get published these days.
There's a degraded feel to the world Sax lives in, where the only real spark of innovation is in depravity. For example, Sax is introduced after shooting in the face a man, who happens to be dressed like a prawn, getting a blowjob from a hooker dressed like an angel. In the prawn's hand is a hammer with a lit joint held in the claw end. Prawn was just about to murder the hooker as he climaxed, but thanks to Sax, he only sprays jizz and his own blood.
There is no real explanation for this beyond the fact that this was a serial killer nicknamed Jack the Hammer by the press, but it seems Sax may have just stumbled across the scene by accident while he was setting up his intended targets.
This is the world Morrison has created this time out. It's a hopeless, dark, and empty world that probably wouldn't be nearly as interesting (and yes, kind of inviting, in a sick way) if it weren't for the singular talent of Darick Robertson on art duties. He doesn't get to cut loose often in ways that I'm used to seeing Robertson cut loose — although the first issue opens with a shot of a wino vomiting while a dog pisses on him, which is a start — but that's not a concern at all here.
Robertson provides what is essentially a master-class on visual storytelling, from the bookending opening and closing moments of the series (we begin falling into the scene with the snow, and end rising back up into a snowy sky — before the epilogue, anyway) to every moment in-between. There's not a botched perspective or a confusing layout in the entire four-issue run. The layouts range from a traditional page breakup to dramatic angled fragments splitting the page to emphasize the fact that characters have suddenly walked into a deadly trap.
And every single element of this story is realized in an ugly realism that makes some images, quite honestly, hard to even look at. But in a good way. Robertson is inking his own pencils and you can see him becoming more and more comfortable with these characters as the pages build and build. By the end of the series, Sax, who begins as almost a blank slate generic hitman anti-hero, has developed nuances and details that make him very distinctive and individual. He becomes more humanized visually as the story goes on.
Whether this is just Robertson developing the character with more detail as the days and months of drawing passed, or if it was a conscious decision on the creators' parts to emphasize the central theme of the story, it works. That central theme? Happy! is all about examining the power of hope and imagination to make a positive impact on a world that is mostly consumed with degrading filth.
Yes, I know that's also a metaphor for comics in general, but it's also a bit cliché and one of the reasons I don't think Happy! really stands up with the rest of Morrison's oeuvre. It's a tightly constructed story, but it doesn't really try to do a lot with the metaphor. It's simply a nice little story, well-told and illustrated. The use of the blue feather to signal transitions between straight reality and imaginative reality is a fine example of how the story works a little better visually than it does in words and ideas.
There's nothing here that could possibly drive a potential anti-Morrison fanboy away with complex imagery or intricate storytelling tricks and stunts. But there's also not a lot to hang onto emotionally when every character is as sick and perverted as they possibly could be. That urge to go over-the-top in a manner more natural for someone like Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis doesn't feel comfortable when Morrison tries it. So it's a relief when the imaginary Happy the Horse shows up at the end of the first issue.
The pairing up of the hit man who hates everything and everybody with an imaginary creature filled with hope and optimism sounds like a sure thing, narratively speaking. Which is why, I'm sure, RZA has put a film adaptation on his schedule as a follow-up to his debut feature, The Man with the Iron Fists. Hell, Morrison is even writing the script. Hopefully on screen, Happy will contrast more effectively with his nihilistic partner.
In the actual text, though, I never really bought into the central concept. Happy just wasn't a dramatic enough contrast personality-wise. I never really felt like he was really a little girl's imaginary friend. Many times he just felt like a plot device. The conception and execution of the imaginary friends that appear in the conclusion of the story (in a scene reminiscent of pages from Flex Mentallo) was something that could have used more attention and development. I was looking for a more dynamic mash-up of the imaginative world and the hopeless reality Sax lives in.
There is a hint that imagination is like another dimension — an idea that Morrison touched on in his Batman run when he brought Bat-mite into the story — though it's not fleshed out enough to serve as more than an interesting plot point and nothing more.
Robertson, on the other hand, clearly has a ball illustrating Happy, and you can see as the story develops, his use of the character becomes more inventive and the design loosens up a bit, becoming more exaggerated and cartoony as Happy becomes more and more real to Sax. It's a strange kind of parallel as Sax becomes more human in the art, Happy becomes more animated. It's another nice touch, whether intended to visualize the themes of the work or not.
The opening two issues are colored by Richard P. Clark and in the first issue he brings to the page a muted palette only occasionally brightened by bursts of color from Christmas lights and the lights of an ambulance. Both of those explosions of color are used to emphasize perverse and/or dangerous moments, drawing a vibrant contrast between the everyday grime and the violence and corruption of this world. Both are diegetic uses of color to make an emotional and thematic impact, rather than using interpretive washes or background bursts to do the same.
When the bright blue Happy arrives, signaled by the appearance of a mysterious blue feather (which has interesting plot connotations that are spelled out in the epilogue), we begin to get more use of realistic colors and the muted grays and browns that opened the story are left by the wayside. By the end of the second issue, there are those impressionistic bursts of color as featureless backgrounds for Happy and even as occasional emphasis for Happy's dialogue.
Issues three and four are colored by Tony Avina and the work is more in line with traditional coloring efforts. His work is more about creating a realistic world than emphasizing theme. It's not a bad thing, and flows naturally from where Clark was moving through the first half of the series. The only negative aspect of this is that Happy's blue no longer stands out as distinctively as it did in the beginning. To offset that, Avina makes Happy shinier and brighter, almost glowing at times. Combined with Robertson's exaggerated development of Happy it works quite well.
I guess what I'm saying is that this is a beautifully illustrated work that demonstrates to any doubters that Darick Robertson is a badass talent with few shortcomings. And anyone with questions about Grant Morrison's storytelling abilities will find nothing but solid plotting and characterization in Happy! The only real problem I had was that it didn't feel like the Morrison I've known and loved for nearly 25 years. It lacks the, I don't know, the Art School side (?) of his creative voice, if that makes sense. That lack forces the story into more pedestrian vulgarities than we usually see with his work. Anyone who has read The Filth knows that Morrison has stockpiles of perverted imagination, but hardly any of that comes into play here.
Happy! is not a bad piece of work. It pushes boundaries and it looks fantastic. It's just not pushing the boundaries I was hoping to see pushed by this creative team.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.